Books are about empathy, not division

The whole point of reading is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

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It’s about relating to people that *are not* like you. I thought for a bit about books with characters like me in them and they weren’t people that matched me in identity, but in thoughts, feelings and actions. When I read I can be anyone else.  So why would I just want to be me?

And since it’s almost guaranteed that someone will go “ah that’s cos you’re privileged and represented in books so many times” and it always comes back to technicalities of “what you are” instead of who you are, I will be blunt: the vast majority of the time I’ve read about people with my ethnicity and gender they’re being murdered… so lucky me, I guess?

But really the point here is not to say “I need books where people like me are not being murdered”; nor is it to say that there is some secret class of people that somehow manage to abscond with all the “privilege” in the world. If you know me at all, you’ll know that’s not what I’m about. In fact I am saying quite the opposite- the truth is we can all relate to books where on-the-surface there is nothing relatable in them. Art is the great leveller in a free society.

Let’s be honest, none of us have much in common identity-wise with Dobby the House elf, but many of us still cried when he died (come to think of it I don’t have much in common with Hedwig either and that did me in too…). Books do not have to be about what we are at all to have a profound emotional effect.

So read beyond what makes you comfortable, never segregate your reading habits and explore horizons you never thought you could.

Just a thought… Let me know what you think in the comments! 

Book Borrowing Horror Story!!!

Okay- that title implies quite a bit more drama than actually ensued, but I thought it would be fun considering my post the other day where I basically said that I find writing in books (for the most part) a-okay, to flip the conversation on its head and talk about why I’m hesitant to lend books and the perhaps surprising fact that if people mess with my bookish babies, they will have to deal with the full force of a monkey wielding a bunch of bananas…

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I also have to add that this post was inspired by a wonderful post Emily @Embuhlee Liest did a while back where she shared a harrowing story of borrowing betrayal… You guys should check it out!!

twilightMy own story revolves around an unsuspecting series I’ve actually unhauled- so I shouldn’t actually have been as scarred by this as I was- and that book series was Twilight. I know, I know- this is the equivalent of my saying “I’m really upset by what happened to my reader’s digests I stored in my basement for years”. But whatever, let’s go back in time to my teenage years, when sparkly vampires were a thing (yes as much as we’d all like to forget it, it was in fact a thing) and this actually mattered to me. It was just before the films came out and only two of us in my 60-in-a-year girl’s school had read these books. So when someone I wasn’t too friendly with asked if she could borrow the first one from me, the resident bookworm, I said yes…

When she was done with it, she wanted to lend it to her friend, and then she wanted to lend it to her friend and before I knew it, my books had passed through every girl in my year! (Yes, yes, I blame myself for spreading this cancer to this day). Not only did it take me ages to track down where these books had ended up, but when I was finally reunited with my books, they were all torn and beat up- the *horror*!! And of course, everyone said “I got them like this”.

So because of all this I have some pretty darn strict rules for lending books:

  • I don’t lend books I expect to get back. If a book is special to me, it’s staying right where I can see it.
  • I only lend to people that reciprocate- partly cos it’s like a book hostage situation- “wanna see your book again… well then give me mine back!”
  • Mess up my books and expect the aforementioned banana pelting (and for the record- just cos I said writing in books is fine, don’t write in your friends books!)
  • Lastly if someone says “oh I lent it to someone else…” well let’s just say the person will be going on my lending blacklist- I don’t care if the person is your gf/bf, mother, aunt, best friend’s sister- don’t lend out books on my behalf! Not cool!!

That’s all for today! Hope you’re having a lovely Sunday! Do you have any rules for book borrowing? Let me know in the comments!

In Defence of Writing in Books

So this is pretty pretty controversial, but I thought in the spirit of talking about deadly sins, I thought it was time I discussed one of my bookish habits… And that is writing in books!

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Now I know that just mentioning it will be enough to get many people running for the torches and pitchforks, but I do have my reasons for this. I rarely do the whole *oh look I got a humanities degree* thing unless I’m looking for laughs, but in all seriousness, this is standard practice for students and academics in this field. For purely practical reasons, writing in books not only helps with selecting poignant quotes, but is the most effective way of dissecting language. To give an example, here is my copy of Dorian Gray:

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I didn’t just highlight it for kicks or because *pretty colours*- I actually did that to expose the layers of meaning across the text, particularly in this incidence colour coding specific symbolism and techniques Wilde used. While I have actually poked fun at this before in my Goodnight Moon post, I can also tell you that this is an accurate look at how a poem that’s been properly analysed will end up looking. For me and many others, writing in books is device to encourage thinking.

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Even though I keep a ton of notebooks to hand, it’s not sufficient for all the ways a book needs to be taken apart and there are downsides for doing a proper thorough analysis just using one technique– time wasting if nothing else is a huge issue with writing out all the quotes- a lot of books need both to do it justice.

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And while I wouldn’t personally write in a library book, I’ve found other people underlining passages in non-fiction helpful and add to the debate/discussion the book is having. I don’t know about you, but I’m a “work as close to the deadline as is humanly possible” kind of gal, so if at uni I picked up an annotated non-fic book where some kindly soul had drawn arrows literal to the important bits, I’d be singing Hallelujahs all the way home. As for writing in books I borrow from friends- well, I’m not an *animal*! (Just a cheeky monkey- but I still wouldn’t dream of doing that!)

Other people also say writing in books is a way of making a book more personal too- which is fair- because, even though I only annotate classics, would-be classics or non-fiction, I do feel like people reading my books are getting a bit of a more personal experience (or just getting walloped over the head with *foreshadowing* signposts as my sister complained to me once). Whatever way you personalise your books, there is something to be said about picking up a used book and finding someone else’s impressions in it (it’s a weird quirk I have, but I even love stranger’s inscriptions in the front of used books).

One last complaint I have seen is “what would the author think!” Well the obvious answer is “I have no idea” but then nor does the defender of clean copies. Some writers might be offended, sure, but I can only live my life as a “do as you would be done by” sort of person. And I can safely say for myself, as a writer, that if someone annotated my work I would be over the moon. Because it would be saying “look how many thoughts I had because of what you wrote!” I cannot imagine anything more flattering.

So- dare I ask- do you agree or disagree? What is your opinion on writing in books? And should I expect an angry mob outside my home tonight for being a *tad* too controversial? Let me know in the comments (so I can barricade my front door!!)

Is it worth analysing and reviewing non-fiction?

You know how sometimes real life and the blogosphere collide? Well recently someone told me that they didn’t think I should review non-fiction books. Now my first reaction was something like this…

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But then when I cooled down a bit, I actually came up with an argument as to why it’s just as important to review non-fiction as fiction…

To answer the question I posed- the short answer is YES! I mean, I started my blog to tell the truth- to be honest about my feelings regarding books in a way I often couldn’t be in real life. Part of that might be to recommend books and part of that is to discuss the way a book touched me- and for so many books what can really strike me is the ideas it holds inside. So what would be the point if we could not talk about the ideas in non-fiction? Why limit myself?

Well, for a lot of people, it is the fear of being called arrogant if we happen to disagree with greater thinkers than ourselves. BUT- and I shouldn’t really have to point this out- just because someone disagrees with another person doesn’t mean they think they’re better than them- just that, in the words of John Mill, “mankind are not infallible”. Moreover- how limiting would it be to the progress of human thought if you could never disagree? Disagreement is the very essence of finding truth and having a healthy debate (Also “how dare you disagree with my favourite philosopher you arrogant prick” is not an argument or a refutation, just sayin’ 😉 ).

Non-fiction creates a discussion and encourages the spread of ideas. So much of it is crying out to be shared, discussed and argued with. A lot of these thinkers did not want people blindly listening to them or obeying them like lemmings running off a cliff…

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Of course, there are different ways of looking at and writing about non-fiction. I’ve personally found the more philosophical a book, the more room for thought there is in my post about it. And that is so exciting to me! It keeps me on my toes and makes for more diverse types of reviews.

For me, and for many of you, book blogging is a part of our journey as readers. We evolve with the things we read with the things we read and if we can’t or don’t feel comfortable arguing back or discussing ideas then we may as well pack the whole thing in.

Quite simply, when I talk about ideas I learn about them. As fun as it is to be a passive reader, it is very rewarding to actually have to think while I read from time to time. And knowing that I have to write about it afterwards really helps me stay focused. I learn so much when I decide to read and review something non-fiction. I won’t be stopping any time soon.

So what do *you* think? Should we discuss and review non-fiction just as much as fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Prattling on about the way books are marketed

So there’s something really strange going on in the world today. People do not like to be told that things really aren’t as bad as they think- especially when it comes to issues that they care about. But sometimes things really aren’t as bad as some people think. Especially when it comes to the way books are marketed.

Over the years, I’ve seen *a lot* of different complaints and claims made about publishers that to my mind are misguided, nonsensical and really inaccurate. The two main grumblings I’ve heard are book cover designs being deliberately aimed at one gender or another and using initials for female author’s names.

Straight off the bat I could say that these are really storm in a teacup complaints. But I thought it would be worthwhile to break down some of this and provide a counter-argument for a change.

The first and most obvious issue with the objection that book covers are marketed in a certain way is that capitalism doesn’t work the way these people think. Commercialism is quite simply about supply and demand. It’s about the freedom to choose. As fun as it no doubt is to cook up some half-baked conspiracy theory about how publishers have some sinister agenda to hide female writers from us, or deliberately discourage men from reading certain genres, just from a business perspective I can say this would be a really foolish thing to do. To be blunt, if a commercial operation can take your money, it will! If these marketing techniques didn’t work at all, no one would use them.

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No prizes for guessing the book genre here…

But why then are books marketed this way? And why is it important? Well, we as book bloggers will all admit that we *love* judging books by their covers. Book covers are often designed in a way to give us some indication of what to expect. When I see a half-naked man on a cover I know what I’m getting in for. I like to have my expectations met and don’t like being misled about what’s actually between the covers. In all honesty, I wouldn’t buy a book that didn’t show me anything about what’s inside and I’d be peeved if the cover was, say, an innocuous picture of a boat and it turned out to be hard-core erotica.

Now we are all old enough here to be able to make these decisions for ourselves, but I would like to point out that there doesn’t seem to be a major issue of bias in the way children’s books are chosen. Given that 78% of people in the publishing industry are women, I’d be interested to hear people trying to make that argument. Anecdotally I can add that as a child I had no problem picking up masculine books, like Alex Rider, which FYI were stocked in my all girls’ school library. And I have male friends whose shelves are stuffed with Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson or Enid Blyton books.

One final point that I’d like to make is that there is a logical reason behind the decision to use non-gendered names. JRR Tolkein started the trend over fifty years ago, anonymising his name to give his fantasy works an air of mystery. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I see initials being used. To this day, it’s still a trend for both male and female authors of fantasy to give their books the allure of the unknown. An author like V E Schwab would certainly be playing into that tradition- and I would argue that given she was already published under Victoria Schwab, it kind of negates the argument that she needed to do this in order to be successful. And let’s be honest, it’s never been a secret that J K Rowling is a woman- but even if this was a decision that was made because she was woman, I feel like this was a kick in the teeth for aforementioned authors like Dianna Wynne Jones, who had conquered this market twenty years prior. Anyway there is no comparison with using initials to authors like Austen having “a novel by a lady” written on the cover of her books or Charlotte Bronte going by Currer Bell. Personally, I think it’s a shame to make a mountain out of a molehill over an issue like this given the stark comparison.

Forgive me for this random, rambly piece- this is just something that has been on my mind a while and thought I’d share.

So what do you think? How do you feel about the way books are marketed? Let me know in the comments!

What is wrong with pretentious books?

So I’ve spoken at length before about things I hate in books- being badly written or moralising are definitely up there as the two most obvious things to put me off a book, but I have never spoken at length about one of my *biggest* pet peeves. And since I seem to have reviewed the quintessential pretentious book the other day, I figured now was a good time to discuss this.

Trouble is it’s hard to define, even if you know it when you see it. There are some clues that give a pretentious book away: they never have a plot, a fair number of the characters will be mouthpieces for the author,  and there will be lots and lots of authorial intrusion. Not that these taken individually are always bad things, yet if you find them all in the same place, you can often guess what kind of book it will be.

What creates a gulf between “deep” books and pretentious ones in my mind is that it is marked by “philosophising gone wrong”. Of course, it doesn’t need to be said that a book isn’t pretentious just because a book is discussing heavy issues or making complex conclusions (but obviously I’m saying it anyway, for clarification). I will hit a person over the head with my copy of Crime and Punishment if they dare say books should never be profound! BUT there are times when a nice philosophical debate nosedives into “what the hell” territory. The most obvious being when the author thinks it’s a good idea to start moralising- and while not all books that moralise are pretentious, you can bet that all pretentious books include moralising.

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As many of you know by now, I *hate*moralising- when the author puts on a sanctimonious tone and starts imposing their irrelevant views on the story, I’m a goner. But pretentious books *always* take moralising to a new level. Because in pretentious books the author is always trying to bamboozle the reader with their (*ahem*) brilliant observations that obviously no one has ever heard before (sorry to disappoint, there are no new ideas, get over it). And one of their favourite ways to do this is to use deliberately obtuse language.

Now, obviously I’m not referring to beautiful language (I officially give you permission to get all dewy eyed over Fitzgerald or Keats etc). No, I’m talking about when you read a sentence and go “ye wot?” There is a huge difference between beauty and obscurity. I mean, in the words of Keats “Truth is beauty”- deceptive language is actually harmful to the soul rather than nourishing.

Really, what pretentious authors fail to note is that the smartest people disseminate their ideas in as clear ways as possible. Nietzsche, for instance, said incredibly complex things in the simplest of sentences. While his words, like “God is dead” give the illusion of simplicity of thought, they deliver a hammer blow to the psyche. A pretentious fool would use innumerable, over-complicated ways to deliver their message- often something that doesn’t even make sense anyway (*cough* As I Lay Dying *cough cough*).

Nor do intelligent people talk in circles. They get right to the point and do not waste time on the surface level details. A fool is bogged down by issues such as whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy or a comedy- which I can tell you from experience is not a subject that warrants an hour long discussion (it’s a tragedy with subversive comic elements at the start to temporarily mislead the viewer- see, nice and simple). At best you’ve wasted an hour of your time, at worst you’ve convinced yourself of a lie and reached some pretty daft conclusions (yes, I’ve met people that think Romeo and Juliet is a comedy now).

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All of this serves a single purpose. By making the meaning obscure, talking nonsense and distancing the reader from the truth, the reader is unable to relate on an emotional level. And this “unrelatability” is the biggest tell-tale sign of pretentious literature. Somewhere along the way, the author forgot that the book was supposed to make you feel more than just confusion. Art is not supposed to be an author rummaging round for a few lost brain cells- it is a quest for the reader’s heart and soul. Evidently, this is a test that pretentious writers fail every time. They are the kind of authors that never leave the Shire, let alone make it back home again.

(Yes I just finished with a Lord of the Rings analogy)

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So what about you? How do you feel about pretentious books? And what books do you think are an epic failure? Let me know in the comments!

When is something too much?

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So I’ve always thought of myself as having a strong constitution when it comes to violence of all colours and creeds in TV and literature. I mean, my favourite TV show is Game of Thrones, I enjoy a good Tarantino movie and have watched legs get sawn off in House (ok the last one did make me wince). And when it comes to books- I’m a diehard Hardy fan and can recognise that Lolita is a great work of fiction (even if I did throw that book at the wall multiple times while reading it). Yet as you may have seen in my post yesterday, even I have my limits. Sometimes there are stories and portrayals of things that just make me goddamn livid.

After watching the rape episode in Outlander, pretty much all I could think was “what the actual fuck”. And that’s a somewhat toned down version of my thoughts. I was seriously pissed off by it- which is even more surprising as I am not the kind of person to criticise a show for raping and torturing a character (hello- GOT fangirl here…)

So it got me to thinking- are there limits to what is acceptable? Can fiction ever be too much?

JJ Azar did a great piece a while back on the subject, which I highly recommend you read, but I wanted to give my reasons why violence is both good and necessary in literature:

  • “Life is suffering”– even if it’s gratuitous (sometimes even because it’s gratuitous) it’s cathartic and gives some alleviation from very real suffering
  • Furthermore, it’s often contextually relevant and realistic
  • It serves a purpose in the plot– not just for the catharsis, but sometimes it can be integral for a characters journey- which leads me onto…
  • Pain creates heroes and villains– without it these are just ordinary people- and we need extraordinary people in our fiction in order for it to deliver its message and make us feel the impossible
  • In this way it often serves a mythological and symbolic purpose in the story– images of suffering, such as those of Christ on the cross, serve as an immutable force in fiction. They carry all the weight of stories that have been remembered from the dawn of human consciousness. There is a power in that which cannot be explained by mere words.

So even though Outlander missed the mark for me- and I can see that it didn’t come close to hitting a lot of these targets- I cannot argue that there is a time when fiction ever goes “too far”. We may very well have our individual limits,  but ultimately nothing is too much if it is done well and for a purpose.

What do you think? Can fiction ever cross a line of what is and is not acceptable? I know this is definitely a more contentious issue- but I’d love to hear your thoughts!